Calgary school board rife with ‘turmoil,’ short-term thinking: report

Calgary school board rife with ‘turmoil,’ short-term thinking: report
WATCH: The Calgary Board of Education is under fire over its governance and accusations of financial mismanagement. As Adam MacVicar reports, an independent review outlines concerns with how the board is run and makes recommendations for improvements.

An independent review has found the Calgary Board of Education  focuses too much on protecting individual members and not enough on its broader mission and long-term finances.

“Overall, the findings are indicative of an organization that has undergone turmoil at the governance level with a focus on process over function and a short-term view of financial sustainability,” accounting firm Grant Thornton wrote in a report released Thursday.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange issued a ministerial order, effective immediately, based on 19 recommendations in the report.

They include hiring a minister-approved governance instructor and evaluating ways to reduce risks associated with the pricey headquarters building the board leases in downtown Calgary.

It also recommends the board consider eliminating all half days to save on transportation costs and do an updated salary survey.

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“The overall findings lead me to believe that there is a dire need for improvement,” said LaGrange, who was a trustee for the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division for more than 11 years.

“Perhaps the most concerning of all is the finding that the board’s short-term view focused more on protecting individuals on the board rather than fulfilling their overall mission.”

LaGrange said the board has until Nov. 30 to meet all recommendations, or trustees will be fired.

She said it’s a realistic target, even as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps schools shuttered.

READ MORE: Calgary Board of Education trustee resigns, posts scathing reason why

The board acknowledged in a statement that there is always room to improve.

“The citizens of Calgary expect that we will be good stewards of public dollars and we will continue to spend those dollars to support student learning,” it said.

It noted much in LaGrange’s order has already been addressed as part of the board’s 2020-21 budget, including rehiring teachers and transportation changes.

“At my first read through the report, in many ways I was encouraged because some of the recommendations are things that the board is already doing work on, and these are conversations we’ve been having for some weeks,” CBE board chair Marilyn Dennis said in an interview with Global News.

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READ MORE: CBE announces $32M funding shortfall in wake of 2019 Alberta budget

Trustees added they already get advice from outside experts, but “we look forward to expanding our complement of governance coaches.”

The board said it has recently been exploring buying its head office building, for which it signed a 20-year lease almost a decade ago when the market was much more robust. Subletting space is not an option in the current market, it said.

LaGrange ordered the $125,000 financial audit and governance review of the province’s biggest public school board last fall.

She said at the time that she was disappointed the board announced it would lay off more than 300  contract teachers instead of working with her ministry to find other ways to cover a $32-million budget shortfall.

READ MORE: Calgary Board of Education to cut 300 temporary teachers amid $32M shortfall

The teacher cuts were averted after the province allowed a $15-million infrastructure and maintenance renewal grant to be repurposed.

In November, LaGrange accused the board of “reckless misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

The Grant Thornton report did not use language nearly that strong to describe the improvements it said should be made. The board said it was pleased the review found no financial improprieties or irregularities.

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“The language and the level of aggression and antagonistic language that’s used against the largest public school board in Western Canada is a bit baffling to us,” Support Our Students communications director Barbara Silva said.

“Certainly there comes across a lack of integrity with this minister talking about putting children first, when throughout this pandemic she let go 26,000 education workers who work on the front lines with students.”

The report highlighted some things the board has done well, such as keeping maintenance and planning costs in line with other big city school boards and having appropriate procurement practices.

Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling said education thrives on stability, and that the past year has been very uncertain for students, teachers and school boards alike.

“Starting the school year off without a budget, knowing that Calgary had a big gap, and there was a disagreement between Alberta Education and CBE about what that gap in the funding was, potentially laying off 350 teachers, not laying them off, and then the pandemic coming in,” Schilling said. “We need to find a way to ease that tension and find the stability back in the system.“

Sarah Hoffman, the NDP Opposition’s education critic, said the review is about finding someone else to blame for education cuts made by the United Conservatives government.

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“About 5,000 new students are expected to attend CBE schools next year and their total funding is still less than it was under the last NDP budget,” she said in a statement.

A summary of the recommendations is available online.

— With files from Global News’ Adam MacVicar